Two fall favorites hold scary-good health benefits

As All Hallows’ Eve approaches, chances are, you’re stocking up on pumpkins and chocolate. 

But before you set these fall favorites aside for the little witches and goblins that come to your door on October 31st—and for carving jack o’ lanterns—I suggest saving some for yourself as well.  

After all, these goodies are actually quite vital for your health. 

In fact, pumpkin and chocolate are two of the most nutrient-dense foods around. They’re also loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants and anti-inflammatories.  

So, it’s no surprise that study after study shows they can help SLASH your risk of a variety of common chronic health issues. And now, new research helps highlight exactly how these treats do the trick for your health… 

The great pumpkin offers great protective benefits 

As Charlie Brown’s friend Linus said all along, pumpkins truly are great—especially when it comes to nutrients.  

They’re loaded with vitamin K (half of the recommended daily requirement), and vitamins B, C, and E. They’re rich in fiber and an excellent source of much-needed minerals like copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, selenium, and zinc. And they contain significant amounts of carotenoids, including the alpha- and beta-carotene your body uses to produce vitamin A. All of which provide various health benefits.  

Indeed, carotenoids help improve eyesight and protect against eye diseases. They also help your skin defend itself from ultraviolet rays and sun damage. Plus, the antioxidants, like vitamin C, help boost the immune system (which is especially imperative as we enter yet another cold and flu season, and continue battling against the coronavirus).  

Not to mention, pumpkin consumption (including the seeds) has been shown to lower the risk of prostate, breast, throat, pancreas, and stomach cancers. And the potassium, fiber, and vitamin C in pumpkins have been linked to lower blood pressure and reduced stroke risk.  

In addition, new research shows that pumpkins may be a natural antidepressant and stress reliever… 

In one recent study, lab animals were exposed to chronic, unpredictable, mild stress for 28 days. But get this: The animals given pumpkin extract had significantly improved behavior and brain structure associated with depression. The researchers even suggested that pumpkin could alleviate stress-related depression all by itself, without the use of risky drugs!1  

Of course, this experimental study was done in animals. But a recent study in humans found that a proprietary extract of pumpkin taken for 28 days significantly increased the levels of the “feel good” chemicals serotonin and norepinephrine in the human brain.2 The researchers attributed the results to the pumpkin’s beta-carotene, which has been linked to reduced depression symptoms in other studies. 

Now, it’s important to note that much of this research applies to unprocessed pumpkin extract—either the flesh or seeds. That’s because many of pumpkin’s nutrients get lost when you buy seeds in a bag or puréed pumpkin in a can. Plus, industrial processing can contaminate pumpkin’s natural goodness with nasty additives and toxic, artificial ingredients. 

That’s why I recommend making your own, fresh pumpkin purée, and roasting your own seeds. The good news is, it’s much easier than it sounds. (See the sidebar on the next page for my favorite recipes!) 

Now, let’s move on to chocolate… 

Go cuckoo for cacao 

The cacao in chocolate is as rich in nutrients as pumpkin. Along with naturally occurring antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, healthy fats, and fiber, chocolate is an excellent source of many minerals, including copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and zinc.  

Like pumpkin, numerous studies have shown dark chocolate to help lower depression and boost mood—mainly due to its flavanol content. But it has also been found to improve cognitive function in older adults. Researchers believe the flavanols protect nerve cells, improve the transmission of brain signals, and increase blood circulation and flow to brain tissue (as they do for the rest of the body).   

Of course, the key is to eat the right kind of chocolate…  

Because cacao has the health benefits, you want to reach for chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cacao—and preferably more. In other words, we’re talking about dark chocolate here. Not milk chocolate—which contains much less cacao, plus a lot of added sugar and fats. And not so-called “white” chocolate, which may not contain any cacao at all. 

Even dark chocolate contains plenty of calories, though, so I recommend just a few ounces a few times a week. While it may seem counterintuitive, that amount has actually been shown in several studies to reduce obesity and lower body mass index (BMI). Researchers think this is due to cacao’s theobromine (a natural stimulant similar to the caffeine in coffee and theophylline in tea).   

In fact, one new study shows that consuming chocolate in the morning may lower BMI and decrease blood sugar levels.3  

Spanish researchers gathered 19 postmenopausal women (average age of 52) with healthy BMIs. The women were divided into three groups: One group ate 100 grams of chocolate (about 3.5 ounces) daily within one hour of waking up. The other group ate the same amount within one hour of bedtime. The third group didn’t eat any chocolate.  

After 28 days, the researchers found that none of the groups gained weight, and the morning chocolate group had a smaller waist circumference. The researchers think this is because chocolate helps reduce total calorie intake—in fact, both chocolate groups reported decreased hunger and desire for sweets. Plus, the morning chocolate group burned more body fat, which could contribute to their slimmer waists. 

This group also had lower fasting glucose, which has been linked to a decreased risk of type II diabetes. In fact, other research shows that chocolate’s flavanols help reduce the insulin resistance that contributes to type II diabetes. Chocolate has also been shown to boost muscle cell function, which could ultimately lower blood sugar (through transporting more glucose out of the blood and into the muscle tissues). 

Plus, research shows dark chocolate’s polyphenols (like flavanols) help improve circulation, support heart-muscle cells, and prevent blood clots. Consequently, some studies have found that people who regularly eat dark chocolate have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke.  

Along those lines, I’m eagerly awaiting the results of COSMOS (Cocoa Supplement and Multivitamin Outcomes Study). (I had been contacted by colleagues at Harvard about participating in the study, but did not want to take the risk of being blindly assigned to the placebo group not getting cacao.) 

This study is evaluating whether cocoa supplements can help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. For four years, nearly 22,000 men and women (more than half of them over the age of 60) consumed 600 mg of cacao flavanols per day. It concluded on the last day of 2020, and researchers say they hope to have results available before the end of this year. (I’ll share those with you as soon as I get them!) 

Meanwhile, there’s already been quite a bit of research on chocolate and colon cancer. And a recent research review of more than 50 studies in both animals and humans shows that the flavanols in cacao can prevent or slow the initiation of colon cancer.(I’ll report more on colon cancer research in next month’s issue.) 

Pumpkin and chocolate for all seasons 

For centuries, our ancestors have not only enjoyed the taste of pumpkins and chocolate, but also reaped many health benefits (for the long and fascinating history of these two crops, see the sidebar on page 4).  

And the research into those benefits is ongoing. In fact, the Mars chocolate company has been funding some very good research on their signature product. Over the past 20 years, they’ve sponsored more than 150 studies on cacao flavanols—including funding the COSMOS study I just mentioned.It’s a good thing we don’t have to rely solely on the National Institutes of Health’s diet and nutrition “experts”!   

Meanwhile, groups like Pumpkin Rescue are trying to prevent food waste by encouraging people in the U.S. and U.K. to both carve and eat their Halloween pumpkins.6  

Of course, Insiders’ Cures readers are already ahead of that curve, but it’s good to spread the news.  

So, while Halloween is a great time to enjoy pumpkins and dark chocolate, these nutrient-rich foods don’t have to be just holiday treats. (The health benefits aren’t just seasonal.)  

Go ahead and incorporate a few dollops of pumpkin purée, a handful of pumpkin seeds, a cup of hot cocoa, or a couple squares of dark chocolate into your balanced diet year-round.  

You can even start sprinkling some cacao powder over your full-fat yogurt in the morning! 

The global history of pumpkins and chocolate 

Pumpkins are a distinct variety of squash with a long history in the Americas. In fact, the English word for squash, askutasquash, comes from the native American Natick and Narraganset languages. 

Some botanists think squash first came to the Americas from Asia. Perhaps early humans carried seeds with them from Siberia to Alaska across the Bering Strait 50,000 years ago. 

Because squash has a very long growing season, it was among the first seeds planted by early Native Americans in the spring…and one of the last crops harvested in the fall (which helps explain the later link between pumpkins and Halloween).   

Some native American tribes grow squash together with beans and corn. Together, squash, beans, and corn provide complementary nutrition in terms of protein, carbs, and essential amino acids. 

French explorer Samuel de Champlain described this sophisticated multi-cropping technique in the early 1600s—before the Pilgrims even landed at Plymouth. The Iroquois of the upper Northeast call this three-crop combination de-o-ha-ko, or “three sisters.” And the Onondagas, who lived in today’s upstate New York, called these crops tune-ha-kwe, or “those we live on.”   

Chocolate comes from the cacao tree, which rarely grows north of the Tropic of Cancer because it requires a hot and humid environment.  

The ancient Mayans and Aztecs of Central America and Mexico prized cacao beans so much that they used them as a form of cash. Aztecs also pounded the roasted cacao beans in hot water and drank them as a beverage—sometimes sweetened and thickened with honey and cornstarch. Or they made it spicy by adding cayenne pepper—another native food. They called this beverage “chocolate,” a combination of the Aztec names choco for cacao and latl for water. 

In the early 1500s, the Spanish explorer Hernan Cortez invaded Mexico and sent cacao beans back home. The beans were dubbed the perfect “pep pill” because they naturally increased Spaniards’ endurance and improved their capacity for hard work. As a result, chocolate quickly became the national drink of Spain, just as it was in Mexico. 

But as demand increased, cacao became rare and costly. And it aroused the interests of Dutch and English smugglers and privateers. By the early 1700s, European powers began cultivating the plant in their tropical colonies, and in the mid-1700s, the Dutch discovered how to produce a chocolate powder that was perfect for making cocoa beverages.   

Then, in the mid-19th century, Cocoa butter began to appear on the market. Soon afterward, it was combined with powdered chocolate to make the first solid chocolate bars. Enter Mr. Cadbury in Great Britain, Mr. Hershey in Pennsylvania, and Mr. Mars in Virginia. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

My favorite pumpkin purée and roasted seed recipes 

Pumpkin purée 

Preheat your oven to 300oF. Wash the outside of a pumpkin with lukewarm water, and cut the entire pumpkin (skin too!) into medium-sized chunks.  

Then, cut off the pith (strings) and seeds from the chunks. (Save the seeds for roasting—see the recipe below.) Place the pumpkin chunks skin-side up in a large roasting pan. Add 1/4 inch of water and bake uncovered for 1 hour, or until tender.  

Let the pumpkin chunks cool. Cut away the skin, and mash or purée the flesh. A five-pound pumpkin will yield about 2 cups of pumpkin purée, which you can use in any recipe that calls for canned pumpkin.  

And to keep sugar intake down, skip the sweet pumpkin confections that are popular this time of year. Instead, try adding your fresh, cooked pumpkin to soups and tomato sauces. You can also add cinnamon, nutmeg, and a dollop of pumpkin purée to your morning steel-cut oatmeal. 

Pumpkin seeds 

Cut open a pumpkin and scoop out the seeds. Place the seeds in a colander or strainer, and rinse the pulp off under your kitchen faucet. Then, dry the seeds with a towel. Toss the seeds with a little bit of olive oil and salt, place them on a baking sheet, and roast them in the oven at 325°F for 10 minutes. 

Then, let cool and enjoy! Some people choose to crack the dried, roasted shell and extract the soft, inner seeds. But I prefer to eat my roasted pumpkin seeds whole, along with the shell, for the added nutrition (especially fiber) and crunch.  

Both of these tasty, healthy snacks can last up to three months at room temperature in an airtight container, nine months in the refrigerator, or a whole year in the freezer! 

Sources: 

1“Cucurbita pepo Alleviates Chronic Unpredictable Mild Stress via Modulation of Apoptosis, Neurogenesis, and Gliosis in Rat Hippocampus.” Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2021 Jul 10;2021:6662649. 

2“Improvement of depressive behavior by Sweetme Sweet Pumpkin™ and its active compound, β-carotene.” Life Sci. 2016 Feb 15;147:39-45. 

3“Timing of chocolate intake affects hunger, substrate oxidation, and microbiota: A randomized controlled trial.” FASEB J. 2021 Jul;35(7):e21649.  

4“Preventive Effects of Cocoa and Cocoa Antioxidants in Colon Cancer.” Diseases. 2016 Mar; 4(1): 6. 

5https://www.mars.com/news-and-stories/articles/cocoa-flavanols-can-support-health 

6https://www.hubbub.org.uk/pumpkin-rescue 


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